Origins: The Dream and the Journey

Icelandic Society – A Brief History

Although Irish Monks may have settled briefly in Iceland prior to the first visit by Norse raiders, it was Vikings, specifically renegade Chieftains, who established a lasting settlement. 

They had known about the island for some time. A Viking sailor named Naddooddur happened upon it while lost, and a Swede named Gardar Svavarsson circumnavigated it about 1860.

The first attempt to settle was by a Norwegian named Floki Vilgeroason. He landed in the northwest but a severe winter killed his domestic animals and he sailed back to Norway.

It’s no surprise that he named it Iceland.

Beginning in 874 many settlers came to Iceland from Norway and the Viking colonies in the British Isles. A Norwegian named Ingolfur Arnarson led them, bringing along with his family, slaves and animals.

By 930 the Chieftains had established a form of governance, the Althing, essentially the world’s first parliament. 

Iceland was independent throughout this period, a time known as the “Old Commonwealth”. Its historians began to document their story in books they called “Sagas of Icelanders”
During the 12th century conditions on Iceland deteriorated. Overgrazing and the destruction of the forests led to soil erosion. Lack of wood to build ships left the Icelanders dependent on Norwegian merchants. At that time wool, animal hides, horses and falcons were exported from Iceland. Timber, honey and malt for brewing were imported. Some Icelanders began to look to the king of Norway to protect trade.

Feuding between clans also contributed to the decline. Icelanders who desperately wanted peace eventually realized the only way to obtain it was to submit to the Norwegian king.

In 1280 a new constitution was drawn up. The Althing continued to meet but its decisions had to be ratified by the Norwegian king. Furthermore the king appointed a governor and 12 local sheriffs to rule. 

In 1397, with the unification of Norway and Denmark, Iceland fell under Danish control.

The 14th and early 15th centuries were also troubled years for Iceland. In the early 14th century the climate grew colder. Then in 1402-03 the Black Death struck Iceland and the population was devastated.

Conditions improved in the 15th century. At that time there was a big demand in Europe for Icelandic cod and Iceland grew rich on the fishing industry. 
In the 17th & 18th a strict Danish-Icelandic Trade Monopoly hurt Iceland’s economy. The poverty of its people was further aggravated by a series of natural disasters (especially a particularly destructive volcano in 1783) that resulted in a population decline.
An independence movement resulted in the restoration of the Althing in 1843.
Home Rule was established in 1904, but it wasn’t until after World War I that full independence was gained.
These are the events and forces that shaped the lives of Icelanders up until the time of extensive migration to the “New World”.
In 1870 many groups began exploring options for re-settlement in North America.

The Last Straw

On 3 January 1875, Mount Askja, a large active volcano, erupted, spewing millions of tons of debris into the air. Over the next few weeks, dozens of eruptions occurred, filling the sky with smoke. Finally, on the second day of Easter, Mount Askja erupted with tremendous force. The lethal smoke and ash filled the air and rained down upon Icelandic settlements across all of Iceland.
Askja erupted again in 1961 – but the minor eruption lasted only a few days.

This disaster was additional incentive for the migration of twenty percent of Iceland’s population to North America. Winnipeg became the most popular destination during the 1880s. To this day, Manitoba remains North America’s centre for Icelandic culture and activities. The localities of Gimli, New Iceland, Riverton, Lundar, Morden, Lakeview, Erickson, Baldur, Arborg, and Glenboro are known for their Icelandic cultural influence.

New Iceland


Sigtryggur Jonasson, father of New Iceland Colony.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

One group of Icleanders settled in Kinmount, Ont., in 1872 but they found that conditions there were unsuitable and decided to keep looking. In October of 1875, Sigtryggur Jonasson, with the assistance of John Taylor, a missionary who was to become a lifelong friend to the Icelanders, moved the settlers a spot along the shore of Lake Winnipeg. Here they established the "State of New Iceland" with its own constitution, laws and government, although in all except local matters, it remained under the authority of the Canadian Government.

The form of self-government was modeled on the Althing back home.

The Vatnsthing (‘Lake Parliament’) ruled over four districts:

•    Vidinesbygd (‘Willow Point Community’, now the Gimli District);
•    Arnesbygd (‘Arnes Community’);
•    Fljotsbygd (‘Icelandic River Community’, now the Riverton District); and
•    Mikleyjarbygd (‘Big Island Community’, now Hecla Island).

An 1877 map showing the New Iceland settlement
on the western shore of Lake Winnipeg.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

New Iceland represents an important episode in the early settlement of the Canadian West. The arrangement made with the Canadian Government enabled them to preserve their language and cultural identity while quickly becoming a valued and respected Canadians. Numerous descendants maintain vibrant traditions and close ties with Iceland.

John Taylor, missionary and Canadian agent for the New Iceland Colony, no date.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

Hard Times

But the beginnings in New Iceland were a challenge. The first winter set in unusually early and was extremely cold; there was a scarcity of food, warm clothing, and housing. Added to these problems, scurvy and other diseases took their toll of life. In 1876, a smallpox epidemic swept through the settlement and New Iceland was put under quarantine until 1877. The next three winters were so wet that hay crops were ruined and cattle were starving.

New Iceland pioneers posing in front of their log cabin in the Gimli area, no date.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

Eventually the settlement took hold and thrived, based largely on fishing and forestry, but for those more interested in agriculture the grass did indeed seem greener to the south and west.

The Icelanders landed at this 'White Rock' located on the beach.
Willow Island Park has been developed by the Amason brothers and the White Rock on which the settlers symbolically landed has been polished and raised on a foundation.


Landing at Willow Point

Willow Island is lined with lakeside homes today.

New Beginnings in Argyle Municipality

Everett Parsonage, who had worked for John Taylor in Ontario, had settled at Pilot Mound and wrote to his friends in New Iceland, encouraging them to come west and settle. In August of 1880, Sigurdur Kristofersson and Kristjan Jonsson set out to visit their friend. Parsonage guided them in a northwesterly direction to an area where there were as yet, no settlers except two men, A.A. Esplin and G.J. Parry, who were living in a tent. Sigurdur and Kristjan were impressed with the land - much of it in rolling prairie grass with small lakes and wooded areas. It would be easy to break and there would be plenty of hay for cattle. When Parsonage rode to the crest of the hill overlooking the land near the present sight of Frelsis Church, he galloped back and shouted, "I have found Paradise!"

Gentle hills, small lakes and fine views

In the Nelsonville land office, near where Morden was later located, Sigurdur filed entry for the first homestead in the Icelandic settlement of what was to be Argyle - SE 10-6-14. He named his farm "Grund", an Icelandic word meaning grassy plain. At Nelsonville he also bought a scythe and walked back to his homestead to put up stacks of hay for the cattle in the spring. Parry and Esplin helped him. They were just out from England and had no experience in putting up log buildings. Sigurdur had some experience in this and he helped them build a cabin.

A few weeks later Parsonage guided Sigurdur's father- in-law, William Taylor, along with Skafti Arason to the same area where they also took up homesteads.

Meanwhile, Fridbjorn Fridriksson and Halldor Arnason, accompanied by several younger men, drove 30 head of cattle from new Iceland to Parsonage's for winter feeding. This was a long and difficult task, taking them several days just to get the cattle across the Assiniboine River.

Parsonage gave Fridbjorn and Halldor directions to Argyle and they also filed for homesteads. These then were the first six men to come from New Iceland to homestead in Argyle: Sigurdur, Kristjan, William, Skafti, Fridbjorn, and Halldor.
The following spring, on March 15, 1881, four families joined them:

‘Skajti Arason: with his wife Anna and two small children. He brought three work oxen and one pony hitched to four sleighs. On one sleigh, he had built out of lumber a small frame house 6' x 10'. He also had 10 cattle.

Gudmundur Nordman: came alone with two work oxen pulling two sleighs and all his belongings.

Sigurdur Kristojersson: left his wife Caroline and two small children in Winnipeg with friends, to come out later. He brought his belongings in two sleighs and a few head of cattle.

Skuli Arnason: brought all his belongings in two sleighs pulled by two oxen, and he had a few head of cattle. One sleigh was covered and he brought his wife Sigridur and four children.

They travelled to Winnipeg, on to Portage la Prairie, then in a southwesterly direction. After 17 days they arrived on March 31, in the east end of the settlement near Skuli and Gudmundur's homesteads.

The last day the weather turned bitterly cold and snowy. To save the exhausted oxen some belongings were left along the way.
When night came, they camped together at a bluff near Skuli's land. The cattle were suffering from extreme cold and hunger. The weary settlers camped near the shanty of two settlers, Parry and Esplin,  until April 15, Good Friday, when each went to their own land. The day was beautiful and mild, and in a few days the snow was gone. They camped and helped one another until their cabins were built.

A new chapter had begun.